"When our research group first met after the initial tour of the larger class’ study site in Newham, we took turns sharing what intrigued us about the site. We discussed the peculiarities of various neighbourhoods, the legacies of industry and de-industrialization related to the royal docks, but importantly each of us seemed to gravitate to the large presence of water in the site, and for different reasons, including the commodification of the water; the spiritual importance of water in different cultures; and the ecological potential of a water body in the city.

Since the dawn of civilisation and the first cities along the Euphrates and the Tigre river, water has been one of, if not the most, essential feature of human settlements. Through the ages, urban water bodies have had a persistent spiritual, ritualistic, and existential significance for the urban denizens living near them. Today however, in an era where green spaces occupy a preeminent role in cities’ efforts to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, blue spaces receive less critical engagement by urban scholars and practitioners. This blind spot in contemporary planning theory and practice cemented our project’s focus on the Royal Victoria Dock.

Along with other natural and infrastructural systems that extend their sprawling tentacles into the increasingly complex organisation of modern cities, blue spaces appealed to us as a network of rivers, lakes, canals, docks, and reservoirs abiding by their own rules and functioning at their own rhythm, with ecological potential simply waiting to be harnessed. It became clear to us that if we were to honestly and rigorously engage with blue spaces, we had to develop a new theoretical understanding of urban water that saw it as separate from green spaces and went beyond the existing ‘traffic logic’ of water as a sewage system. As our site is post-industrial and irremediably transformed by the hands of humans, we also considered what kinds of impacts our proposed intervention would have on multispecies and ecological life.

Building on these initial insights and supported by our on-site research, our project espouses a restoration and transformation of the Royal Victoria Dock into a vast wetland. This idea is radical on many levels: First, it entails putting people at the centre of the space by reconnecting them with the water body as a common resource. Physically separated by industrial infrastructure and later socially excluded from the water space by neoliberal redevelopment, Newham residents will be able to reclaim this immense dock thanks to the public space created as part of the wetland restoration. Secondly, and most importantly, we adopted a ‘more-than-human’ approach to the site by designing for the local biodiversity and wildlife that had been battered and pushed out of the space since the industrial revolution. By including bird nests, fish hotels and oyster reefs in the design proposal, our project expands the notion of environmental justice to multispecies.

In essence, our project is about reconnecting people with water, each other, and the natural environment. Conscious of the deep impact of urban interventions on ecosystems and the resource and ecological limits of our planet, Blue Commons initiates a paradigm shift in contemporary urban planning that seeks to reconnect with nature by creating space for it and letting it flourish.”


Water is the lifeblood of humans and the environments we inhabit. For urban dwellers, both human and non-human, water constitutes various natural, social and technical processes and landscapes (Allon, 2009). It is first and foremost an integral feature of physical geographies in the form of precipitation, rivers, lakes and oceans, enabling the flows of the hydrological cycle. As a social agent, water is used for agricultural, industrial, household, recreational and spiritual purposes, structuring and (re)producing urban activities. Lastly, water is inextricably tied to all sorts of small-to-large-scale urban infrastructures, such as water provisioning, sewerage networks, water purification systems and hydropower dams, and symbolizes the social and technological advancement of the city and the improvement of urban lives. Indeed, water in its various forms, whether material or symbolic, plays a central role in maintaining the metabolism of the modern city (Gandy, 2004; Heynen, 2014; Orlove & Caton, 2010; Swyngedouw, 2004). As Swyngedouw (2004, p.1) writes in his book Social Power and the Urbanization of Water,

”Water is indispensable ‘stuff’ for maintaining the metabolism, not only of our human bodies, but also of the wider social fabric. The very sustainability of cities and the practices of everyday life that constitute ‘the urban’ are predicated upon and conditioned by the supply, circulation, and elimination of water.”

In Urban Political Ecology, the concept of urban metabolism refers to the circulation of matter, values and activities that make and remake urban environments (Heynen, 2014). This notion is underpinned by relational thinking that moves beyond the natural/social dichotomy to see the urban as composed of interconnected “socionatures” (Swyngedouw, 1996). This concept sees human and nonhuman elements as bound together by interaction, and in particular, water as “hydrosocial networks” that constitute urban metabolic processes; changes to any nodes in these networks can alterge urban landscapes (Heynen, 2014; Kaika, 2005; Moncayo-Riascos & Salas-Zapata, 2019).

As an element of the natural environment that sustains life and ecosystems, water should be seen as a commons despite the fact that its physical and geographical distribution is naturally uneven. This is based on an understanding of the commons as resources that are accessible to all, wherein accessibility cannot be limited or unequal: in other words, an individual cannot reduce another’s ability to enjoy the resource (Sim et al., 2012). It is important to note that the involvement of numerous stakeholders in water use, as well as usage of water for various purposes, may lead to a tragedy of the commons; that is, the overuse of water resources (ibid). In contrast to the ideal commons, the commodification of water in the twenty-first century, and its compounding implications for ecological cycles and for the water supply, management and usage that cities depend on, risk the enclosure of water (Orlove & Caton, 2010; Swyngedouw et al., 2002). When water is privatised, the rights of exclusion held by power-holders can result in the under-use of the scarce resource, and water spaces and infrastructures may be made unequally accessible to different socio-economic groups (Gandy, 2004; Swyngedouw, 2004). These challenges underline the need for urban planners, designers, policy-makers and the public to gain a renewed and enriched understanding of water as a commons. Water does not simply sustain socionatures, but can threaten them. Water represents risks of flooding, tsunami, pollution and scarcity, and is also associated with climate risk and food insecurity. A number of physical, social and political factors result in the uneven exposure and vulnerability of people and other species to water-related risks, producing and reinforcing ecological injustices (Cutter et al., 2000; Hendricks & Van Zandt, 2021).

The conventional idea of commons from a property ownership perspective helps to uncover the regimes of inclusion and exclusion associated with the enclosure of water, but fails to overthrow the status quo of inequitable water access and unequal risk distribution. In this project, we advance the concept of “blue commons” where a relational approach is adopted to attend to the complexity of water as a commons with risks, and the potential of water as a solution to an ecologically just urban future. We argue that the latter can be achieved through urban design that focuses on restorative urbanism and ecological justice (EJ) that directs hydrosocial networks towards mitigating climate change, improving health and wellbeing, and repairing socionatures impacted negatively by industrialization, commodification, neoliberalization and undemocratic political processes. The precedent use of “restorative urbanism” by Roe and McCay (2021) refers to the integration of mental health and well-being into urban design, but we extend this concept to refer to a design approach that liberates urban socionatures from exploitation. We understand EJ as encompassing three components: distributional, procedural and multispecies justice (Celermajer et al., 2021; Rigolon et al., 2019). First, distributional justice concerns the inclusivity and accessibility of spaces, resources and restorative impacts. Second, procedural justice refers to the meaningful participation and representation of local communities in shaping their environments. Last, moving beyond the conventional anthropocentric understanding of justice that sees humans alone as meriting ethical or political consideration, we see EJ as a form of multispecies justice that responds to the destruction of non-human lifeways (Celermajer et al., 2021).

Using the Royal Victoria Dock (RVD) in Newham as a case study, we aim to show how an urban blue space can be redesigned as a blue commons that engenders EJ. This project is based on archival research, ethnographic research including observations, activity mapping, surveys and interviews, and policy and precedent case study reviews.


The site (Fig 1.1.) is located in East London’s Royal Docks, comprising the Western section of the RVD and surrounding pedestrian waterfront spaces. The North edge of the site contains the Emirates Airline cable car station, and the ExCeL convention centre plaza. The South edge runs along a residential development, and the West edge is flanked by an apartment complex, a commercial building with workspaces and restaurants, a beach and a wharf leading into the dock water, and the new home of the Greater London Authority (GLA): the Crystal building.

Figure 1.1: The site
Figure 1.1: The site.

In a regional sense, the RVD is a comparatively large water body and a significant water resource. A map of green and blue spaces (Fig.1.2) present at the borough-scale of Newham reveals many blue spaces, but few blue-green integrations. In fact, several local residents and visitors interviewed at the North edge of the dock pointed out the lack of greenery in the dock area. For example, one white British female visitor articulated: “I guess if there was more green space it would be useful for families. It would be really nice to have children growing up here.” However, comments like this suggest green and blue spaces as additive to each other rather than interconnected, reflecting a ‘green/blue for leisure’ ideology that has been normalised in academic literature, urban policy frameworks and public opinion. It is important to consider how water flows work in tandem with green spaces to address challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and water management (Ghofrani et al., 2017). The size of ‘brownfield’ spaces in the borough indicates the presence of past and present industry in the area, and suggests a high possibility of industry-related contamination contributing to air, soil, and water pollution. The proportion of spaces outlined in Figure 1.3 indicate not only the prevalence of blue space and associated resources in this area, but also the need for restoration resulting from the ecological impacts of industrial activities.

Figure 1.2: Blue-green space.
Figure 1.2: Blue-green space.

Figure 1.3: Blue-green-brown space
Figure 1.3: Blue-green-brown space.

Water risks are present in the form of flood risk in and around the study site, threatening the neighbouring communities of Canning Town, Custom House, and Silvertown. This site lies in flood risk zone 3, and experiences a 1% annual risk of river-flooding and 0.5% annual risk of sea-flooding, mitigated at present by a flood barrier system (AECOM, 2017, p.106). Other environmental risks present at the site include water, air and noise pollution. As part of the Thames 21 water study (n.d., par. 3), 92% of water samples in the Thames River found high levels of harmful coliform bacteria in the same water that flows through the dock. Residents, workers and visitors to the site are also exposed to disproportionately high levels of air and noise pollution as airplanes from the London City Airport fly at low altitudes directly above the site. People are not the only beings that suffer from ecological degradation in the RVD: Various flora, fauna and habitats are present on site, including protected birds, bird breeding grounds, fish and potential bat and invertebrate habitat (Wileman, 2018).

Demographic research into the RVD reveals health disparities and significant differences in employment and ethnic makeup between the people who live at the dock and elsewhere in Newham. Newham residents experience poorer health and are more ethnically diverse compared to residents living in and around the RVD (Office for National Statistics, 2011a; 2011b). Comparatively, the RVD appears to be an insular space where residents are more white, experience better health, hold higher levels of employment, and engage in more white-collar work (Office for National Statistics, 2011a; 2011b; 2011c; 2011d). The picture painted by these statistics is one of segregation between groups, with a privileged population residing around the RVD and constituting an exclusive space.

Figure 1.4: Local context of Newham
Figure 1.4: Local context of Newham.

Historical Context

Echoes of popular and working-class exclusion from the docks are present throughout the area’s history. ​​“Water, water, everywhere, but none of it for us.” (Newham Docklands Forum, 1983, p. 16). This quote from a Newham resident appeared in the People’s Plan for the Royal Docks, a community-informed plan for the area’s development in the 1980s (ibid). It reflects a disparity between those who could access and benefit from the Royal Docks’ water resources and those who could not, a dynamic that lives on in the 21st century. A look into the history of the area yields insights into how this exclusion took shape and why it has persisted.

The RVD was the first of three Royal Docks constructed to facilitate and capitalise on growing international commerce and trade via shipping in the 19th and early 20th centuries (Royal Docks Management Authority, 2020). The surrounding communities of Canning Town, Silvertown and Custom House housed dock workers and their families, and were plunged into economic deprivation and widespread unemployment when the docks became obsolete in the 1960’s (ibid). Deprivation was exacerbated by the absence of public services and displacement caused by regeneration projects (Spearing, 1975).

Figure 1.5: Local context of Newham
Figure 1.5: Local context of Newham.

Uncertainty surrounding the future of the docks led to contestation among various stakeholders including the central government, the Greater London Council (GLC), borough councils and grassroots organisations. Despite grassroots mobilisation and outcry from local politicians, the central government under Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC, essentially quelling the People’s Plan and fulfilling fears that “erosion of [...] local democracy in planning [would] accelerate” (I&E Docklands Team, 1985, p.2) by placing full control over dock regeneration in the hands of the London Dockland Development Corporation (LDDC) (BBC, 1986; Spearing, 1975). The LDDC failed to consider local residents’ needs in development plans, and swept environmental concerns about toxic pollution under the rug (Controller of Transportation, 1985; Tilly, n.d.). In the 21st century, attempts at “regenerating” the Royal Docks have relied on attracting private investment, signalled by the area’s designation as London’s only “enterprise zone” (Royal Docks Team, n.d.a). Overseas, the docks have been marketed to developers as a “regeneration supernova” and “future Asian business district” (Hancox, 2014). This approach has transformed the RVD into a site of luxury tourist consumption, and created an exclusive space in and around the water.


An organigram illustrating stakeholders and governance in the dock over time shows that this space has been regulated and contested since the creation of the dock. Following deindustrialization in the 1970s, the city government held jurisdiction over the docks through the Docklands Joint Committee, consisting of borough council members and private actors. The following decade saw the greatest level of contestation over dockland governance as the LDDC’s power grew and grassroots organisations mobilised to oppose the development corporation. In the 2020s, dockland management has been largely reclaimed at the city level, guided by the Mayor of London and Newham Council through the Royal Docks Team.

Figure 1.6: Organigram
Figure 1.6: Organigram.

Current Development

The dominant feature of the RVD is a highly regulated and controlled environment resulting from the various political structures that have been in charge of managing this space over time. The unwelcoming nature of the space is a by-product of the limited range of permitted activities and signage expressing the restriction of activity. For example, the ownership of the southern edge of the site is indicated by signage displaying messages such as “invited to use this path for walking”, suggesting that the privately-owned public footpath could be closed at any time. Another example is the prohibition of activities on the beach with the paradoxical injunction of a sign reading “please enjoy yourself.”

In addition to restrictive signage, the visual and physical accessibility of the water is impeded by elevated hard concrete edges as well as metal fences around the dock. Although these measures have been put in place for safety, they leave only one area where water is accessible: the beach, which is also highly regulated and restrictive. One way to access the water is by paying a hefty fee to engage in a water-based activity such as paddle boating or swimming. A white British male living and working close to the dock remarked, “Wakeboarding, I was gonna go do it, but it was like 70 quid for 20 minutes [...] or something like that. I could just go outside of London. It’s pretty expensive.” The dock water is not democratically accessible and is conditioned by paid memberships. The impossibility of indulging in affordable activities paired with the exclusively consumptive character of the activities around the dock corroborates with the prior statistical finding that the RVD is an affluent exception in the otherwise deprived Newham landscape (Newham Info, 2019). Despite the tremendous potential it holds as the largest enclosed dock in the world, this space is underutilised and focuses on a narrow range of activities that cater to tourists rather than local residents.

Figure 1.7: Cost of leisure on site
Figure 1.7: Cost of leisure on site.

Figure 1.8: Signages
Figure 1.8: Signages.

Beyond the immediate site, the numerous developments planned for the vacant and disused brownfield sites located in the eastern part of the RVD yield insights into the redevelopment strategies present in the space. The ExCeL centre, the largest exhibition centre in the city, has been granted planning permission by Newham council for further development (ExCeL London 2021). This extension will generate an even greater influx of transient daytime tourists, businesspeople and other exhibition visitors who will use its privately-owned public space and luxury amenities, exacerbating the conspicuous divide between RVD occupants and Newham residents.

South of the ExCel centre stands Millenium Mills, a derelict flour mill dating back to the industrial period, and the future site of a large-scale mixed-use redevelopment (Royal Docks Team, n.d.b). With little regard for the local context, this project aims to attract new economic activities to the site and secure real-estate investment. This follows the typical template for post-industrial regeneration in London and the RVD.

As part of the five-year Royal Docks Enterprise Zone Delivery Plan, a commissioned Public Realm Framework proposes changes to the dock that “activate the role of water”, ranging from floating swimming pools and greenhouses to maritime cultural festivals (5th Studio, 2019). While some of these interventions merit consideration, this plan generally fails to propose use alternatives for this site and remains within the current neoliberal paradigm of investment attraction and leisure-based consumption. These plans for the site suggest that its development will remain on the trajectory of neoliberal market-based and supply-oriented urban development unless a radical intervention takes place.

Figure 1.9: Current developments
Figure 1.9: Current developments.


This site serves as a microcosm of Britain’s transition from an industrial empire engaging in international trade to a service-based economy hosting a plethora of neoliberal and consumptive activities. Alongside this, political exclusion has extended from the industrial era into the present as local residents are excluded from decision-making processes that shape their communities. The dock water’s commodification, restricted access, and leisure-oriented development results in an under-use of the space and an unequal distribution of the water resource. As it currently stands, the RVD does little to serve Newham residents outside the confines of the immediate surrounding area, and places little value on local ecology and wildlife, creating an anthropocentric space. Thus, a restoration of ecological justice in the area – procedural, distributional and multispecies – is required, and can be achieved by changing the nodes of the hydrosocial networks.


In addition to archival and precedent case study research, ethnographic methods of activity mapping and surveys were used to understand urban hybrid flows and nodes. Following William Whyte (1980) and Jan Gehl’s (2013) work on activity mapping, observations and recordings of various physical and social activities in the RVD and their frequency were recorded. This was done over a period of one and a half hours in the morning, afternoon and evening on weekends and weekdays. Walking, jogging and cycling were the most frequent activities, while water activities were least prevalent. The Northern edge of the dock was the most active area of the site, and weekend afternoons were the busiest time observed.

In an attempt to measure the inclusive use of space, the gender, age group and ethnicity of space users was also documented. Although this data has limitations with reference to non-binary populations and people who may appear as different ethnicities, the aim was largely to understand the existing context of the site. Primary findings from this data suggest young men as mostly active individuals in the site, women as space users largely either in couples or groups, limited numbers of youth and elderly people, and a predominantly white population of space users.

In addition to this, 21 surveys were conducted and supplemented by follow-up interviews. The questions asked were concerned with the participants' demography, location information, interaction with and experience of the RVD, and design suggestions. A large number of the participants lived in the immediate surrounding neighbourhoods, and only a few came from the larger borough of Newham. Their design suggestions included amenities such as toilets, cleanliness and activities for children. The primary findings from these ethnographic methods reinforced the factual data gathered from desktop research. Apart from this, a number of national case studies such as the Bazelgette and Tideaway, and international precedent studies such as the Yangzte Riverfront Park, China and the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Program, Singapore, were also reviewed.

Figure 1.10: Precedent studies
Figure 1.10: Precedent studies.

Design Proposal: Physical Intervention

Figure 1.11: Site plan
Figure 1.11: Site plan.


The most visibly transformative component of the proposal is the creation of an estuarine (saltwater) wetland in the dock water. Wetlands support biodiversity by providing habitat for fish, amphibians and birds native to the area. The benefits of wetlands are innumerable: they mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration, contribute to water purification and decontamination, and mitigate flood risk by enhancing water storage capacity. This wetland would serve as an example of how blue and green urban spaces reinforce one another in a symbiotic relationship that produces many co-benefits. The installation of wetlands would require re-sloping various banks on the edges of the dock to provide a shallow sediment substrate for wetland vegetation to grow on. Over the span of several years, wetland vegetation would grow, depositing organic matter in the dock and facilitating the expansion of the wetland throughout the dock. Over hundreds of years, the accumulation of organic matter in the wetland could form a peatland, where anoxic conditions allow for the greatest carbon sequestration potential of any terrestrial ecosystem. We propose enhancing the wetland through the installation of oyster reefs, which dramatically increase water purification potential and add another form of aquatic habitat to the site. The wetland’s benefits to local residents also include the reduction of noise pollution by disrupting the dock’s flat and noise-amplifying water surface, and the provision of educational opportunities and mental health benefits through engagement with nature. Further, ground permeability will be increased throughout the docksides with vegetated catchment areas that reduce flood risk and improve dock water quality by absorbing and filtering surface water runoff.

Public Footbridge

The proposal includes the construction of a permanent public footbridge that bisects the dock, connecting the North and South edges of the dock in an accessible manner through the use of ramped entrances to accommodate people with disabilities and impaired mobility. The Northern entrance is located in an area with high pedestrian traffic as determined through the activity mapping, with the potential to engage many users. The footbridge will serve not only as a destination site with seating areas, wetland nature, and wildlife viewing opportunities, but as an alternative thoroughfare connecting Britannia Village and Silvertown residents from the South edge to the North edge, where they can reach the Royal Victoria DLR (Dockland Light Railway) station more quickly through increased walkability. Short glass railings along the sides of the footbridge allow visibility of the surrounding wetland while acting as safety measures to prevent people from going into the water in potentially deep areas. The design of the footbridge intends to create desirable areas separate from the main thoroughfare, including seating and play areas undulating outwards in an organic design that mimics water movement. One example of this is the presence of a play fountain, which creates an additional running water feature, masking noise pollution and providing a climate adaptation resource where people can cool down during heat waves. There will also be places to physically engage with the wetland, enabling direct contact with nature, water, and plants where water levels are shallow. Diverse ecosystem types will exist around and throughout the footbridge through the manipulation of water depth and sediment installation.

Figure 1.12: Public footbridge
Figure 1.12: Public footbridge.


Currently, swimming and water activities in the dock are restricted to people who can afford to pay costly fees. Interviews revealed that many more people would enjoy swimming, kayaking or using pedal-boats, and using a beach for informally-organised activities such as volleyball. This proposal would extend the existing artificial beach and create a public swimming pool to allow greater interaction with water at the dock, including a shallow section for children. Age-friendly seating with furniture will be provided in front of the pool to accommodate elderly people and disabled people. The beach space would be mutable to allow for individually-led activities such as picnics, sunbathing and volleyball games. A publicly-funded lifeguard service would be present at the swimming pool for swimming safety.

Figure 1.13: Proposed beach
Figure 1.13: Proposed beach.

The Crystal

The relocation of the GLA to the Crystal building on the West edge of the RVD brings a physical and symbolic seat of power to the dock. In an area that has experienced historic political exclusion, this provides a space for restorative political justice and increased democracy. Accordingly, the proposal includes the creation of a space for public protest directly outside the main entrance of the Crystal to encourage civic participation and give legitimacy and visibility to the public voice, thereby helping to restore political rights. A stepped half-amphitheatre built across from the Crystal will provide a permanent space for protest and public engagement, shaped to symbolically elevate the public and the power they hold over elected government. The existence of the GLA in the dock also lends symbolism to its surroundings: green and blue urbanism, the provision of public space, and ecological design in the physical view of politicians can serve as a reminder of what is owed to the public and to the environment. It will also bring high visibility to these design forms as traffic to the area increases with local and international visitors, raising the profile of ecologically-just design.

Figure 1.14: Section A-A’
Figure 1.14: Section A-A’.

Figure 1.15: Section B-B’
Figure 1.15: Section B-B’.

Figure 1.16: Section B-B’
Figure 1.16: Section C-C’.

Figure 1.14-16: Key map
Figure 1.14-16: Key map.

Mutable Community Plaza

One key feature of Singapore’s ABC Waters Program is the integration of the environment, water bodies and the community, albeit on a smaller scale, through open community plaza design (Singapore’s National Water Agency, 2018). In order to foster community bonds and improve neighbourhood wellbeing, a community plaza in the form of a floating infrastructure will be built on the North edge between the existing footbridge and new footbridge so that the space can be used for mutable, community-designated purposes. The creation of this infrastructure will require the removal of one of the dock’s most consumptive spaces: the luxury Sunborn yacht hotel that caters mostly to tourists and ExCeL Centre visitors. Drawing inspiration from Singapore’s community farming (Feng, 2020), Newham residents are encouraged to design and maintain their own edible garden in this new communal area. Through growing local plant varieties, residents can introduce more biodiversity into the environment, cultivate a sense of community, and potentially improve food resilience. The farming garden can also be used as an outdoor classroom where gardening and sustainability workshops are held for local schools and the wider public. Other proposed activities in the plaza could include picnics, barbecues such as those found in Hackney Marsh, and maintaining notice boards where community members can post information about events to facilitate all-age intergenerational inclusion.

The floating infrastructure supporting the mutable community plaza also provides an opportunity to install fish habitat structures underneath the pontoons, also known as ‘fish hotels’. These comprise of simple structures such as sheet metal tubes or hanging ropes that act as substrates for algae and seaweed to grow on, creating habitat for fish and refuge from predators.

Britannia Village Quayside

The on-site observations have highlighted that an unfavourable sun path creates long shadows and physical separation on the southern edge of the RVD, creating a more or less hostile environment for human activities, and contributes to making this space a distinctively less lively part of the site. To reinvigorate this area, Britannia Village’s quayside is redesigned with a stepped edge. As part of the stepped edge, greenery elements such as vegetation boxes and rain gardens will create natural habitats for animals and insects, help to mitigate the noise pollution generated by the nearby airport, and function as water catchment and filtration areas. On the street level, modular and temporary street furniture made from reused materials such as shipping palettes will provide resting areas for passers-by and visually break up the long expanse of open space, and will be flexibly remodelled according to seasons and residents’ preferences. In order to activate the blank facades of the residential buildings facing the dock edge, the proposal will remove parts of the existing indoor parking spaces and replace them with locally-run and affordable retail offerings.

A lack of public facilities has been noted by local business owners, and contributes to a feeling of exclusion in the dock. The proposal will install garbage receptacles throughout the dock, and bathrooms and changing rooms for swimmers. Without altering the physical integrity of the dock cranes as they are listed Grade II by Historic England, the empty space at the base of the cranes will be transformed into public bathrooms and changing rooms that can be used free of charge. Potentially, the operator cabs could be transformed into viewing platforms, giving educational opportunities to dispense outdoor classes about the industrial heritage of the site as well as the wildlife present in the wetlands. Finally, bird boxes will be placed on the top of the cranes’ booms, creating a propitious habitat for locally-present peregrine falcons. We will also install recessed wall lights that enhance safety and visibility on the dock at night while controlling for and reducing disturbances to aquatic wildlife.

Figure 1.17: Mutable community plaza
Figure 1.17: Mutable community plaza.

Figure 1.18: Britannia village quayside
Figure 1.18: Britannia village quayside.

Figure 1.19: Functions inserted on site
Figure 1.19: Functions inserted on site.


As per the 2016 London Plan, the ‘Blue Ribbon Network’ is policy designation for the strategic network of waterscapes including canals, reservoirs, lakes and docks. This plan promotes the use of these various blue spaces for the transportation of goods, passenger traffic as well as leisure activities, posing a generalist take on blue spaces that does not reflect specific political intentions for the kinds of use they could be oriented towards. The Newham Local Plan adopts a protective stance on waterscapes through policies such as the need for planning permission for tall buildings to systematically undergo screenings for their impact on blue ribbon infrastructures (Policy 2.58 iii.). Another example of this protective stance in the Newham Local Plan is Policy INF6 6.85 which states a general presumption of protection for blue infrastructure, meaning that any loss of or adverse impacts to blue spaces will be resisted and mitigated. In the Newham Local Plan, blue spaces are consistently being mentioned alongside green spaces and are thus treated almost irrespectively. In almost all policies dealing with waterscapes, such as INF6 1. a., 6.8.1, 6.85 and S1 1. b., blue spaces are always adjacent to green infrastructure. This kind of policy bio-colour-blindness is further justified by Newham renouncing the possibility of carrying out a comprehensive borough-wide audit of blue infrastructure (INF 6.90). This lack of recognition of the distinctive nature of blue spaces and their needs is strengthened by the physical separation of green and blue spaces in Newham. This lack of comprehensive blue infrastructure policy has led us to create the following organisational proposal as part of the project.

Due to the large scale and long-term nature of the proposed physical design intervention, its feasibility rests on the political will and capacity available for its implementation. The primary stakeholders that hold authority in the RVD are the GLA, the Royal Docks Management Authority (RoDMA), and the Port of London Authority (PLA). The GLA owns the physical water resources of the RVD and its adjacent dockland, excluding the land in front of the ExCeL Centre and the footpath in front of Britannia Village on the South edge (5th Studio 2019, p.8). The Royal Docks Management Authority (RoDMA) manages the dock water and is responsible for water quality monitoring and letting vessels in and out of the dock, and the PLA also has jurisdiction over the water by virtue of the dock’s connection to the River Thames (Port of London Authority, n.d.). The GLA and PLA are public and state-run, providing a route for organisational collaboration in the public interest.

Although this project focuses on the RVD, many other blue spaces in London as well as the city at large would benefit from a ‘commoning’ and ecologically just approach. The project would see the RVD as a pilot site for this blue commoning approach, and eventually transform other blue spaces in London to manage water risk, share its benefits among all species, and mitigate and respond to climate change. This also provides an opportunity to re-conceptualize the treatment of green and blue space as interrelated and interdependent systems that thrive when treated in a holistic and integrated manner. Considering the scale and distribution of blue spaces in London, the creation of a statutory body at the city level to implement and manage these spaces is part of our proposal. This body will have the power and responsibility to regulate blue spaces with regards to ecosystem conservation and restoration, the equitable distribution of blue space benefits, and the mitigation of risks associated with these spaces. The agency, named, “Blue Space for London (BSL),” will be housed within the PLA due to the agency’s wide jurisdiction and scope of activities in the Thames estuary. The BSL will comprise ecologists, hydrologists, urban designers and sociologists, and will work in collaboration with the national Environment Agency and London Wildlife Trust. It will bring together stakeholders such as local authorities and community members into the planning process to ensure that spaces are developed in a way that responds to the needs of local residents and is culturally appropriate. The requirement to work with local stakeholders integrates procedural justice into the management of blue spaces, and restores previously reduced political rights in spaces like the docklands.

Lastly, this proposal would require significant and sustained funding. For this, a percentage of the existing funds at the city and national level dedicated to flood risk mitigation, public place-making and environmental mitigation would be directed towards this project. Additionally, a revenue stream could be generated from taxes on polluting industries within a certain distance of blue spaces that threaten local water or air quality and require remediation. The same mechanism could be applied to industries that emit greenhouse gases (GHG), creating a tax that directly funds ecosystems with carbon sequestration properties.

Figure 1.20: Organisational structure
Figure 1.20: Organisational structure.

Planning policies and frameworks can also work towards the long-term goal of this project. The first policy recommended by this proposal is the regulation of land-use near blue spaces. This means retaining existing land-use and preventing increased commercial development within a 1-kilometre radius from the periphery of the water body. However, some forms of commercial activity could be permitted such as locally-owned small businesses that build economic and social capital for residents. The cultural and social fabric of blue spaces can also contribute to the “commoning” of a space by making it inclusive to diverse publics and residents. This inclusivity could be maintained by a regulatory policy of façade retention to protect existing local architectural character and aesthetic. Further, flood risk management surrounding blue spaces can be comprehensively addressed with land-use regulations such as setback policies and the restriction of vulnerable land-use development in high-risk flood zones. Water-sensitive urban design elements such as SuDS (Sustainable Drainage Systems) should also be mandated, to increase ground permeability near water bodies that creates flood water storage capacity and filters runoff water to maintain high water quality in blue spaces. These measures include constructing catchment areas like bioswales and rain gardens as well as installing permeable pavement.

Figure 1.21: Old vs new accessibility map
Figure 1.21: Old vs new accessibility map.


This proposal aims to redesign the RVD as a blue commons: we aspire to equitably distribute the benefits of this urban water resource while creating an ecologically just site that is managed democratically and sustainably and serves the needs of humans, flora, and fauna. In particular, the proposed interventions have attempted to create truly public spaces that are non-consumptive and welcoming for Newham residents who cannot currently access high-cost activities in the dock. The design has also strived to address various ecological problems including the climate emergency, environmental and noise pollution, and biodiversity loss. Despite this project’s procedural emphasis on democratic and inclusive community participation, time constraints inhibited a truly collaborative approach to reaching the proposed physical design of the site, and limited community involvement to participation in surveys and interviews. If this project was developed further, a more community-informed approach would be undertaken.

Our vision for the blue commons represents a renewed, relational way of thinking about water as hybrid flows that constitute urban metabolic processes. It challenges the dominant anthropocentric, neoliberal, leisure-oriented waterfront design paradigm that has produced exclusionary, uneven urban blue landscapes in London, both physically and socially. The blue commons is an articulation of restorative urbanism as well as multispecies ecological justice. This is helpful for urban planners and designers to reconsider their ability to shift hydrosocial network nodes to influence the urban water cycle, and their role in designing a more ecologically just urban future for humans and non-humans. The case of the RVD serves as a pilot study for what can happen in Newham and London. Consequently, there is potential for the proposed interventions, and their underpinning principles and theoretical frameworks, to shape waterfront design throughout London and across the globe, establishing more comprehensive and resilient urban restorative networks.

Figure 1.22: Intervention over time
Figure 1.22: Intervention over time.


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